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Broken rosaries

By BARBARA GONZALEZ- VENTURA, The Philippine STAR Published Oct 18, 2020 5:00 am

One afternoon, as I sat making a rosary, I received an email. “Do you also fix rosaries?” the sender asked. For reasons I could not immediately understand, the message shocked me. I had an image of a black rosary with a broken chain. Where did I see that? I felt like I had a relationship with the image. I had seen it before. Then, suddenly, it came to me: Lola’s rosary. I suddenly remembered everything well.

My mother’s mother. My Lola Ching. My mother and I lived with her for many years. My mother was her widowed daughter. My father died when she was 22 and she didn’t marry again until I was in my 20s. But relationships in my family, as in all families, had a lot of drama simmering silently under the surface, until one day the pot just overflowed and everyone went their own way. My grandmother paid her lawyer with our Sta. Mesa house and moved to Makati to live in her own house but near her favorite daughter. My mother and I moved to an apartment on M. H. del Pilar but I still visited my grandmother.

I went and opened the coffin. I cannot — probably never can — forget the smell of formaldehyde that rose from my Lola’s open coffin. With hands that were surprisingly steady I reached over for the rosary...

When I was 18 I got married. My grandmother and her sister were delighted. I think they believed that marriage would tuck me away safely for the rest of my life. My mother’s oldest sister was against my getting married and told me that my groom, who was 10 years older than I, had fathered an illegitimate son with another woman, which was not true. But she tended to love inventing stories like that just to dissuade a hard-headed niece from making what she thought was the greatest mistake of her life.

But I got married anyway. My eldest aunt volunteered to make me a tiara but I had this illusion of just wearing fresh white roses in my hair so I said “no, thank you.” She volunteered to give me pots of blooming white bougainvillea for the church but at that time the church took charge of decorations for all weddings of the day, so I had to say “no, thank you” again. I think she disliked me after all the “no, thank you”s. That sort of put an edge to my relationship with my oldest aunt.

But it brought me closer to my Lola Ching and when my youngest aunt, the archenemy of my oldest aunt, told me that Lola had lung cancer and was given six months to live, I moved my family of husband, two little daughters and a third one on the way into her house and lived with her until she died in 1966, 54 years ago.

Now every one of my Lola’s generation and my mother’s generation are gone. It is my generation that sits in the pre-departure area waiting for the summons. But this lady who asked me if I fix rosaries brought me back to the first night when my grandmother was lying in state at her wake. After all the visitors had gone my oldest aunt came to me and said, “I want you to open Lola’s coffin and break the rosary in her hands.” Sirain mo iyong rosaryong hawak niya. Her exact words that, surprisingly, I can still hear in my head in her voice and precise tone. “It’s bad luck,” she said. “If the rosary is not broken then someone in the family will die soon after her. Do you want to die after her?”

I was 22 years old, easy to scare, so I was mortified. I stood for a while in a state of shock. Tita was behind me, smoking. “Go!” she said in a loud terse whisper. I thought she would follow me but she didn’t.

I went and opened the coffin. I cannot — probably never can — forget the smell of formaldehyde that rose from my Lola’s open coffin. With hands that were surprisingly steady I reached over for the rosary, held it with both hands and firmly tore it apart then fixed it so you could see it was broken if you looked, but it didn’t spill over her terno. Then, in my head, I said, “I’m sorry, Lola, but Tita told me to break your rosary.” Then I slowly closed the glass cover of the coffin so as not to make a sound. Nobody seemed to notice what I had done. I went home in a stupor but my husband just thought I was sad.

All this came back to me so vividly 54 years later when someone innocently asked me if I could fix rosaries. No, I don’t think I can fix broken rosaries. Usually rosary chains are fine and my eyes are no longer that good. “Keep it for when someone dies,” I advised, then quickly apologized. But really it’s because I once had to break a rosary and apparently it gave me a trauma that lasted 54 years.

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Banner image from Beatrice Offor's "The Rosary"